The California coastline beyond San Francisco stretches for over 300 miles towards the Oregon coast, a land of rolling golden hills, heart-stopping drives, and stunning vistas. A few towns of a welcoming size are strung along the shore, tucked into fisherman-friendly bends among the hills - Stinson Beach, Gualala, Jenner, Ft. Bragg, Eureka. Most of these towns are small, perhaps a few hundred, or few thousand residents, with a lifestyle that blends mostly outdoors occupations (farming, logging, fishing, tourism, sports) with a strong sense of community.
One of the best-known of these sleepy towns is Bodega Bay, population 950, located 68 miles of San Francisco. Bodega Bay's claim to fame is it was the site of one of Alfred Hitchcock's most popular films, The Birds. Here you will find a moving tribute to a little boy who touched the world.
Nicholas Green, just seven years old, and his family were on vacation in Italy in September 1994 when they were stopped by highway robbers near Messina, Sicily. The robbers shot the boy, and he died two days later. His parents, Reg and Maggie Green, made the decision to donate his organs - not unheard of in their home country of the U.S., but which at the time, in Italy, was not very common. Nicholas' heart, liver, kidneys, pancreatic islet cells and corneas were transplanted into seven Italians - giving two of them the gift of sight and five of them the gift of life - four of those, teenagers.
The Italians were astounded. Here was a family that lost their son at the hands of bandits in their country, but in the face of their loss, they were generous enough to donate their son's organs so that others might live. Donations were gathered for the family; the nation opened up its hearts to the Greens.
In the wake of this event, the Greens have done a tremendous amount of work to raise awareness for organ donation. They wrote a book and articles, made a video, gave interviews, responded to letters, gave speeches, and started a group called the Nicholas Green Foundation. The Foundation today gives out their Nicholas Green Distinguished Student Award to one student in each state - and they also provide a grant for one Italian doctor per year to come to the United States to study the most advanced organ transplant techniques.
The ripples that spread out from the Greens' decision to donate their son's organs - often called "the Nicholas effect" - didn't stop there, however. Even today, the Green family receives thank you letters from around the world, from people who have received organ donations, and who want to thank them for raising awareness of organ donation. The donation rate in Italy alone has tripled. All over Italy, the little boy who never got a chance at life, but gave life to others, is remembered by so many places named for him: parks, squares, memorials, even the largest hospital in the country.
In Bodega Bay, California, stands a rather simple but very moving monument to Nicholas, called the Children's Bell Tower. It was built in 1995 by artist Bruce Hasson, and consists of three towers stacked upon one another, adorned with 140 bells.
But these are not just any bells: these bells were collected from all over Italy; some of them are hundreds of years old. They came from schools and from churches, ships and mines, family keepsakes and even a cow bell. Some were forged specially for this monument. The centerpiece is a 30 inch bell from the Marinelli Foundry - maker of Papal bells for nearly 1,000 years. Nicholas' name is on it, as are the names of his seven recipients, and Pope John Paul II blessed the bell before it was sent to California.
If you don't know this story, you will likely pass the spot by. There is almost nothing to mark the spot where to turn off; I only found it because I was looking for it, and the man at the Bodega Bay visitor center had told me what to look for. Heading north on Route 1 about 1.5 miles north of the town center, you will pass Bay Hill Road/Ranch Road, and just past that, on your left, is a small community center. Turn into their parking lot and park in the unpaved lot behind that one. From there, you will be able to see the monument.
The land here is open, ringed by tall Cyprus trees, and you walk down a short path towards the bell tower. On the day I visited - late afternoon on a Sunday - I was almost alone at the site. A couple was leaving just as I pulled into the lot; the woman was visibly crying. The young man looked at me, and said, "It's very powerful."
Autumn breezes gently blew across the land, bending the long golden grasses, making the trees murmur, carrying with it the scent of the sea, and bringing the faint tinkling sound of bells to my ears. I wandered down the path, past the shaded reflection bench, and noticed what I first mistook for trash. That's terrible, I thought, Why doesn't somebody clean that up?
It quickly became apparent why nobody did: what I took at initial glance to be garbage was nothing of the sort. By the memorial stone that tells the story of Nicholas Green, people have left mementos, some of them faded in the sun, some obviously new: a weathered yellow Tonka truck, a variety of stuffed animals, action figures, notes, letters, a toy plane, beads, flowers (some still fresh), a smiley pin, a letterbox.
As I approached the tower, I realized its scale, 18 feet tall. The wind caressing the bells sent a melody of chimes over me; some have described it akin to children's laughter. To me it felt like a ghostly reminder, like voices half-heard, making the hair on my neck stand up. It made me remember two friends who had passed away at a young age - one at 18, one at 35 - and I found myself weeping at the memories. This is a haunting place, at once very moving for all that it symbolizes, and sad, in that it remembers the tragedy of a young life cut senselessly short.
But the Bell Tower is a reminder to celebrate living, too, because for every youth or adult who dies and whose organs are given for transplant, other people get a chance at life.
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Should you wish to pay more personal respects to young Nicholas Green, he is buried the churchyard at historic St. Teresa of Avila's in Bogeda. From the Children's Bell Tower, turn right (south) onto Route 1, follow it back through Bogeda Bay, and turn left onto Bodega Highway towards Occidental/Santa Rosa.
- Children's Bell Tower: Route 1, Bodega Bay, CA
- St. Teresa of Avila, 17242 Bodega Hwy, Bodega, CA